Thursday, April 20, 2017

Understanding the physiology of stress and using exercise to combat it

Helen Vanderburg demonstrates a meditation technique.

Stress is a normal part of life and, in fact, we need a certain amount of stress to feel energized, excited and joyful. However, it is when we are struck with high levels of uncontrollable stress that the body breaks down. Understanding the physiology of stress and ways to mitigate stress can help you to understand how best to manage it in your life.

The stress response in the body is like setting off an alarm that activates a cascade of physiological reactions to prepare the body to combat perceived or real danger. This primitive survival mechanism is known as the “fight or flight’ response. When the brain detects stress, a carefully orchestrated and instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses occur. In fact, every physiological system of the body is affected.

When the brain detects stress, it secretes a substance called corticotropin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that acts like a control center. This signal tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone that then alerts the adrenal gland to release the stress hormones; cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline, which activates the sympathetic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic nervous system functions like the gas pedal in a car. When you step on it, it pushes you into high gears and triggers a burst of energy. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes calming after danger has passed.

Stress hormones cause heart rate, breathing and blood pressure to rise. Increasing blood flow to supply the brain and muscular system with more oxygen and energy to produce greater strength and power to battle the stressor. Sight, hearing and other senses are heightened. Meanwhile, hormones and changes in blood flow and circulation to the brain and major muscles redirects blood supply away from the digestive and reproductive system, causing them to slow down. The liver is pushed to release higher levels of glucose (sugar) into the blood steam to produce more for energy.

Muscles contract and hold tension until they are physically used to run or fight. It is commonly felt in the neck, jaw and back causing headaches, low back pain and other symptoms. This tension remains until the energy is used or the parasympathetic nervous system come into play to calm you down.

These changes happen so quickly that we are not consciously aware this is taking effect. In the normal stress cycle, once danger has passed the body self-regulates and dampen the stress response via the activation of the PNS bringing all systems back to homeostasis or balance.

Long term stress creates an imbalance in normal hormone levels and will begin to break down the systems in your body. Unresolved stress can affect the immune system leading to illness as well as, high blood pressure, cardiac irregularities, diabetes and weight gain. Think of it in the same way as physical training. If you push your workouts hard every day the body doesn’t have the opportunity to repair leading to overuse injuries, adrenal fatigue and decreased performance. The same is true for constant chronic levels of stress.

Interestingly, when you exercise you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system to give you the strength to do the activity. The difference with exercise versus perceived chronic stress is the body uses all the resources to produce energy for work, training the body to effectively regulate stress. When an exercise bout is complete the body immediately resets the systems via the PNS to come back to a state of calm. Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practise dealing with stress and improves the bodies communication centers to deal with it.

It is a well-known fact that physical activity is a positive way to manage stress. The physiological benefits of training the body builds a stronger foundation to handle stress. Finding the appropriate amount of exercise and managing exercise intensity with recovery is critical for long term health and stress management. Moderate to hard exercise improves cardiovascular health, enhances immunity and builds resiliency to stress. Continuous intense exercise without the appropriate amount of recovery will lead to over training and chronic levels of stress hormones. When this happens, exercise amplifies rather than protects against the health risk of stress. It is important when you complete an intense workout that you take the time to recover the body by physically cooling down, stretching, refueling appropriately, practicing deep breathing and rest.

Stress management is not a one-size-fits-all. Everyone is a unique position based on  current life stresses, health, activity level and stress management practices. Depending on where you are and what you prefer, different techniques will effectively combat stress. Experiment with these different techniques and see what works best for you:

1. Exercise at a moderate to high intensity a minimum of five days per week

2. Practice deep breathing


4. Strive for eight hours of sleep

5. Do more yoga

6. Eat a healthy balanced diet

7. Avoid self-medicating with caffeine, sugar, alcohol and drugs

8. Stay hydrated

9. Relax or get a massage

10. Make time for fun activities

Finding positive outlets for stress will increase your longevity. So, roll out your mat, tie up your shoes, take a minute and breath!

Helen Vanderburg, co-owner of Heavens Elevated Fitness Yoga and Spin Studio, Fitness Expert and Celebrity Trainer, Author of Fusion Workouts, 2015 Canadian Fitness Presenter of the Year. Motivational and Corporate Health and Wellness Speaker. Find her online at and Follow her on Facebook/ helenvanderburg, Instagram: @helenvanderburg

7 health reasons to have a cup of tea

It's official - tea could save your life, so go put the kettle on..

It's official - tea could save your life.

Whether you're putting your feet up with a cup of tea, joining a collective round, or taking a break from your desk to brew up, there are much deeper benefits than the habitual feeling of curling your hands around a warm mug.

Research from China suggests that people who drink tea regularly have a 21% decreased risk of developing breast cancer.

Lucky for us really because the average Brit drinks three cups a day. After water, tea makes up 40% of the nation's fluid intake. Green and black tea contains polyphenol - the magic ingredient.

Women's health specialist and broadcaster Dr Catherine Hood says: "Polyphenols have been reported to have antioxidant activity and potential anti-tumour effect."

Besides the new study, there are loads of other health reasons for us all to give the humble cuppa plenty of time of day.

And since it's National Tea Day on April 21st, Dr Carrie Ruxton, from the Tea Advisory Panel, gives us the lowdown on why you should drink it.

1. Tea can help you think
A perfect excuse to get away from your desk to make one! Studies suggest drinking tea is related to better cognitive function, because polyphenols help blood flow to your brain.

Dr Ruxton says: "Researchers have looked at keeping your mental faculties for as long as possible as you get older, and they've found these faculties are better in tea drinkers and people with high polyphenol intakes."

2. Tea can keep the dentist away
A natural source of fluoride, tea provides a massive 70% of it in UK diets. Wowzers.

Fluoride helps prevent tooth enamel from breaking down, and so reducing the risk of tooth decay and gum disease.

Tea is also naturally anti-bacterial, and less bacteria in the mouth means less tooth decay.

3. Tea is as good for your skin as water
It's common knowledge, but good hydration helps keep your skin healthy. But did you know that tea can be just as good for it as water?

In a study led by Dr Ruxton, some subjects drank up to six mugs of tea a day and others drank water. A cup of tea was found to be just as hydrating.

4. Black tea can help your heart...
Drinking a lot of black tea every day might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving blood vessel function, according to a Dutch study.

Dr Tim Bond, from TAP, says: "It confirms earlier studies showing the same effect and provides further evidence for the heart health benefits of black tea in amounts of at least three cups daily."

5. And your gut....
Polyphenols from tea are thought to have a beneficial effect on "good gut bacteria".

6. Even your blood
A 2013 Australian study found black tea could help stabilise blood pressure. Other research says tea could have an effect on blood sugar and lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes.

7. Tea keeps your bones strong
Well, the milk in tea does. Four cups of tea with milk provide 21% of your daily calcium requirement.

And cue the tea break!

Research Reveals Poor Sleep May Affect Region of Brain Meant for Seeing Things In Positive Light

Researchers have found that poor sleep may affect a specific region of the brain known to be involved in regulating negative emotional responses, especially in those suffering from depression and anxiety, thereby further restricting their ability to see things in a positive light.
This area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, may have to work harder to modify negative emotional responses in people with poor sleep who have depression or anxiety, said the study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
“Our research indicates sleep might play an important role in the ability to regulate negative emotions in people who suffer from anxiety or depression,” said lead researcher Heide Klumpp, Assistant Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine in the US.
The research team used functional MRI to measure the activity in different regions of the brain as participants were challenged with an emotion-regulation task.
The 78 participants in the study were between ages 18 and 65 and had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder, or both.
Participants were shown disturbing images of violence — from war or accidents — and were asked to simply look at the images and not to try to control their reaction or to “reappraise” what they saw in a more positive light.
An example of reappraisal would be to see an image of a woman with a badly bruised face and imagine her as an actress in makeup for a role, rather than as a survivor of violence, Klumpp said.
“Reappraisal is something that requires significant mental energy,” she said.
“In people with depression or anxiety, reappraisal can be even more difficult, because these disorders are characterised by chronic negativity or negative rumination, which makes seeing the good in things difficult,” Klumpp added.
The researchers found this to be true in those with lower levels of sleep efficiency.
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New 'wonder-drug' may prevent brain cells from dying PTI

"We could know in 2-3 years whether this approach can slow down disease progression. Now diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's can be treated well.

London: Scientists in the UK have discovered a drug that may safely help prevent neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Researchers found two drugs that block a major pathway which leads to brain cell death in mice and prevent neurodegeneration. The drugs caused minimal side effects in the mice and one is already licensed for use in humans, so is ready for clinical trials, researchers at Medical Research Council's (MRC) Toxicology Unit in Leicester, UK said. Misfolded proteins build up in the brain in several neurodegenerative diseases and are a major factor in dementias such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's as well as prion diseases.

Previously, the team found that the accumulation of misfolded proteins in mice with prion disease over-activates a natural defence mechanism, 'switching off' the vital production of new proteins in brain cells. They then found switching protein production back on with an experimental drug halted neurodegeneration. However, the drug tested was toxic to the pancreas and not suitable for testing in humans.

In the latest study, published in the journal Brain, the team tested 1,040 compounds, first in worms (C elegans) which have a functioning nervous system and are a good experimental model for screening drugs to be used on the nervous system and then in mammalian cells. The researchers identified two drugs that restored protein production rates in mice - trazodone hydrochloride, a licensed antidepressant, and dibenzoylmethane, a compound being trialled as an anti-cancer drug.

Both drugs prevented the emergence of signs of brain cell damage in most of the prion-diseased mice and restored memory in the frontotemporal dementia (FTD) mice. In both mouse models, the drugs reduced brain shrinkage which is a feature of neurodegenerative disease. "We know that trazodone is safe to use in humans, so a clinical trial is now possible to test whether the protective effects of the drug we see on brain cells in mice with neurodegeneration also applies to people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias," said Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who led the team from the MRC.

"We could know in 2-3 years whether this approach can slow down disease progression, which would be a very exciting first step in treating these disorders," said Mallucci, now based at the University of Cambridge. "Interestingly, Trazodone has been used to treat the symptoms of patients in later stages of dementia, so we know it is safe for this group.

"We now need to find out whether giving the drug to patients at an early stage could help arrest or slow down the disease through its effects on this pathway," Mallucci said.

Experts excited by brain 'wonder-drug'

There is no drug that slows the pace of dementia

Scientists hope they have found a drug to stop all neurodegenerative brain diseases, including dementia.
In 2013, a UK Medical Research Council team stopped brain cells dying in an animal for the first time, creating headline news around the world.
But the compound used was unsuitable for people, as it caused organ damage.
Now two drugs have been found that should have the same protective effect on the brain and are already safely used in people.
"It's really exciting," said Prof Giovanna Mallucci, from the MRC Toxicology Unit in Leicester.
She wants to start human clinical trials on dementia patients soon and expects to know whether the drugs work within two to three years.

Why might they work?

The novel approach is focused on the natural defence mechanisms built into brain cells.
When a virus hijacks a brain cell it leads to a build-up of viral proteins.
Cells respond by shutting down nearly all protein production in order to halt the virus's spread.
Many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of faulty proteins that activate the same defences, but with more severe consequences.
The brain cells shut down production for so long that they eventually starve themselves to death.
This process, repeated in neurons throughout the brain, can destroy movement, memory or even kill, depending on the disease.
It is thought to take place in many forms of neurodegeneration, so safely disrupting it could treat a wide range of diseases.
In the initial study, the researchers used a compound that prevented the defence mechanism kicking in.
It halted the progress of prion disease in mice - the first time any neurodegenerative disease had been halted in any animal.
Further studies showed the approach could halt a range of degenerative diseases.
The findings were described as a "turning point" for the field even though the compound was toxic to the pancreas.


  • A neurodegenerative disease is one in which the cells of the brain and spinal cord are lost
  • The functions of these cells include decision making and control of movements
  • These cells are not easily regenerated, so the effects of diseases can be devastating
  • Neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and Huntington's
Source: London Brain Centre

Safe drugs?

Since 2013, the research group has tested more than 1,000 ready-made drugs on nematode worms, human cells in a dish and mice.
Two were shown to prevent both a form of dementia and prion disease by stopping brain cells dying.
Prof Mallucci told the BBC News website: "Both were very highly protective and prevented memory deficits, paralysis and dysfunction of brain cells."
The best known drug of the pair is trazodone, which is already taken by patients with depression.
The other, DBM, is being tested in cancer patients.
Prof Mallucci said: "It's time for clinical trials to see if there's similar effects in people and put our money where our mouth is.
"We're very unlikely to cure them completely, but if you arrest the progression you change Alzheimer's disease into something completely different so it becomes liveable with."
But, although trazodone is a current medication, she added: "As a professional, a doctor and a scientists, I must advise people to wait for the results."

What do the experts think?

Dr Doug Brown, from the Alzheimer's Society, said: "We're excited by the potential of these findings, from this well conducted and robust study.
"As one of the drugs is already available as a treatment for depression, the time taken to get from the lab to the pharmacy could be dramatically reduced."
Dr David Dexter, from Parkinson's UK, said: "This is a very robust and important study.
"If these studies were replicated in human clinical trials, both trazodone and DBM could represent a major step forward."

Facebook team working on brain-powered technology

Facebook's Regina Dugan said one day it may be possible to think in Mandarin, and feel it instantly in Spanish
Facebook says it is working on technology to allow us to control computers directly with our brains.
It is developing “silent speech” software to allow people to type at a rate of 100 words per minute, it says.
The project, in its early stages, will require new technology to detect brainwaves without needing invasive surgery.
"We are not talking about decoding your random thoughts,” assured Facebook's Regina Dugan.
"You have many thoughts, you choose to share some of them.
"We’re talking about decoding those words. A silent speech interface - one with all the speed and flexibility of voice."
Ms Dugan is the company’s head of Building 8, the firm’s hardware research lab. The company said it intends to build both the hardware and software to achieve its goal, and has enlisted a team of more than 60 scientists and academics to work on the project.
On his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg added: "Our brains produce enough data to stream four HD movies every second.
"The problem is that the best way we have to get information out into the world - speech - can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem.
"We're working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about five times faster than you can type on your phone today.
"Eventually, we want to turn it into a wearable technology that can be manufactured at scale. Even a simple yes/no 'brain click' would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.
"Technology is going to have to get a lot more advanced before we can share a pure thought or feeling, but this is a first step."
Mark Zuckerberg told the conference that human brains produce enough data to stream four HD movies every second

Facebook envisions technology that is far in advance of anything currently possible
Other ideas detailed at the company’s developers conference in San Jose included work to allow people to “hear” through skin. The system, comparable to Braille, uses pressure points on the skin to relay information.
“One day, not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin, and you to feel it instantly in Spanish,” Ms Dugan said.
With these announcements, Facebook is envisioning technology that is far in advance of anything currently possible. To achieve sophisticated brain control with today's technology requires the implanting of a computer chip into the brain, something Ms Dugan joked "simply won't scale".
There are already external brain-control technologies on the market, but these are simplistic in comparison. Electroencephalogram tech - known as EEG - can monitor electric impulses in the brain, but only for very basic, structured output - such as moving a dot up or down a computer screen.
"We'll need new, non-invasive sensors that can measure brain activity hundreds of times per second," Facebook said in a statement.
"From locations precise to millimetres and without signal distortions. Today there is no non-invasive imaging method that can do this."

Why animals have evolved to favor one side of the brain

Why do people and animals naturally favor one side over the other, and what does it teach us about the brain's inner workings?
Most left-handers can rattle off a list of their eminent comrades-in-arms: Oprah Winfrey, Albert Einstein, and Barack Obama, just to name three, but they may want to add on cockatoos, "southpaw" squirrels, and some house cats. "Handed-ness" or left-right asymmetry is prevalent throughout the animal kingdom, including in pigeons and zebrafish. But why do people and animals naturally favor one side over the other, and what does it teach us about the brain's inner workings? Researchers explore these questions in a Review published April 19 in Neuron.
"Studying asymmetry can provide the most basic blueprints for how the brain is organized," says lead author Onur Güntürkün, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at Ruhr-University Bochum, in Germany. "It gives us an unprecedented window into the wiring of the early, developing brain that ultimately determines the fate of the adult brain." Because asymmetry is not limited to human brains, a number of animal models have emerged that can help unravel both the genetic and epigenetic foundations for the phenomenon of lateralization.
Güntürkün says that brain lateralization serves three purposes. The first of those is perceptual specialization: the more complex a task, the more it helps to have a specialized area for performing that task. For example, in most people, the right side of the brain focuses on recognizing faces, while the left side is responsible for identifying letters and words.
The next area is motor specialization, which brings us to the southpaw. "What you do with your hands is a miracle of biological evolution," he says. "We are the master of our hands, and by funneling this training to one hemisphere of our brains, we can become more proficient at that kind of dexterity." Natural selection likely provided an advantage that resulted in a proportion of the population -- about 10% -- favoring the opposite hand. The thing that connects the two is parallel processing, which enables us to do two things that use different parts of the brain at the same time.
Brain asymmetry is present in many vertebrates and invertebrates. "It is, in fact, an invention of nature, which evolved because many animals have the same needs for specialization that we do," says Güntürkün, who is also currently a visiting fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa. Studies have shown that birds, like chickens, use one eye to distinguish grain from pebbles on the ground while at the same time using the other eye to keep watch for predators overhead.
Research on pigeons has shown that this specialization often is a function of environmental influences. When a pigeon chick develops in the shell, its right eye turns toward the outside, leaving its left eye to face its body. When the right eye is exposed to light coming through the shell, it triggers a series of neuronal changes that allow the two eyes to ultimately have different jobs.
A zebrafish model of lateralization, meanwhile, has enabled researchers to delve into the genetic aspects of asymmetrical development. Studies of important developmental pathways, including the Nodal signaling pathway, are uncovering details about how, very early in an embryo's development, the cilia act to shuffle gene products to one side of the brain or the other. By manipulating the genes in Nodal and other pathways, researchers can study the effects of these developmental changes on zebrafish behaviors.
Güntürkün says that this research can provide insight into the effects of asymmetry on brain conditions in humans. "There are almost no disorders of the human brain that are not linked to brain asymmetries," he says. "If we understand the ontogeny of lateralization, we can make a great leap to see how brain wiring early in the developmental process may go wrong in these pathological cases."

How Poverty Changes the Brain

The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.

You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.

When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.

This happens to everyone at some point, regardless of social class. The overload can be prompted by any number of things, including an overly stressful day at work or a family emergency. People in poverty, however, have the added burden of ever-present stress. They are constantly struggling to make ends meet and often bracing themselves against class bias that adds extra strain or even trauma to their daily lives.

And the science is clear—when brain capacity is used up on these worries and fears, there simply isn’t as much bandwidth for other things.

Economic Mobility Pathways, or EMPath, has built its whole service-delivery model around this science, which it described in its 2014 report, “Using Brain Science to Design New Pathways Out of Poverty.” The Boston nonprofit started out as Crittenton Women’s Union, a merger of two of the city’s oldest women-serving organizations, both of which focused on improving the economic self-sufficiency of families. It continues that work with a new name and a burgeoning focus on intergenerational mobility.

After years of coaching adults and watching those benefits trickle down to children, EMPath has brought children into the center of its model—offering a way out of intergenerational poverty with brain science.

Elisabeth Babcock, the president and CEO of EMPath, said people in poverty tend to get stuck in vicious cycles where stress leads to bad decision-making, compounding other problems and reinforcing the idea that they can’t improve their own lives.

“What we’re trying to do is create virtuous cycles where people take a step and they find out they can accomplish something that they might not have thought they could accomplish, and they feel better about themselves,” Babcock said. Maybe that step helps them earn more money, solves a child-care problem that leads to better child behavior, or simply establishes a sense of control over their own lives. All of these things reduce stress, freeing up more mental bandwidth for further positive steps.

It’s true that exposure to the constant stresses and dangers of poverty actually changes people’s brains. Al Race, the deputy co-director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, which has an enduring partnership with EMPath, says children who grow up in and remain in poverty are doubly affected. But the sections of the brain in question are also known to be particularly “plastic,” Race said, meaning they can be strengthened and improved well into adulthood.

EMPath’s Intergenerational Mobility Project, known as Intergen, uses three tools—one for adults, one for kids, and one for the family as a whole—to frame how they think about their individual and collective lives.

The child and adult tools use a bridge metaphor to illustrate how various domains are all important for ultimate success—if a single pillar on a bridge is weakened, according to the metaphor, the whole bridge could collapse. “The Bridge to Self-Sufficiency,” for adults, guides parents to consider family stability, well-being, financial management, education and training, and employment and career management. “The Child Bridge to a Brighter Future” similarly guides children in thinking about health and well-being, social-emotional development, self-regulation, preparing for independence, and educational progress.

“The Family Carpool Lane Tool,” meanwhile, helps parents and their children align individual and family goals. Working together, they can avoid traffic and cruise through the fast lane.

Intergen mentors visit participating families and facilitate conversations that prompt both adults and children to make future-oriented and contextualized decisions, ones that take into account other important domains. Their goal is to help the adults in the families become mentors for themselves and their children. Eventually, they hope, they make their own contributions obsolete.

Stephanie Brueck, the senior coordinator of the Intergenerational Mobility Project, recently sat down with a single mom, Ginnelle V., who asked her last name not be used to preserve her family’s privacy, and Ginnelle’s five children, four girls and one boy who range in age from kindergarten through college-aged.

Over the last year, Brueck has helped the family think through both personal and family goal-setting. Ginnelle’s youngest, 5-year-old Cyres, has a medical condition that likely will require an invasive surgery that can be delayed through certain exercises. The family’s doctor gave them an overwhelming list of dozens of exercises, few of which Cyres can do on his own. Still, exercise became Cyres’s personal goal for the Intergen Project.

Brueck created an easier-to-use fitness plan and helped Ginnelle think about working up to the doctor’s original list—starting with five push-ups, for example, and helping Cyres eventually reach the recommended 25. Looking back, Ginnelle thinks it’s strange she couldn’t break down an overwhelming task into more approachable steps on her own.

Drinking beetroot juice before exercising boosts brain performance

Researchers suggest that drinking beetroot before exercising may aid brain performance for older adults.

A A number of studies have shown that physical activity can have positive effects on the brain, particularly in later life. New research has found that it may be possible to bolster these effects, simply by drinking beetroot juice before exercising.

Researchers found that older adults who consumed beetroot juice prior to engaging in moderately intense exercise demonstrated greater connectivity in brain regions associated with motor function, compared with adults who did not drink beetroot juice before exercising.
The research team - including co-author W. Jack Rejeski of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC - says that the increased brain connectivity seen among the adults who drank beetroot juice was comparable to the connectivity seen in younger adults.
Rejeski and colleagues recently reported their findings in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A.
Beetroot - often referred to as "beet" - is a root vegetable best known for dominating plates of food with its bright purple juice. In recent years, beetroot has gained popularity for its potential health benefits, which include reduced blood pressure and increased exercise performance.
Such benefits have been attributed to the high nitrate content in beetroot. When consumed, nitrates are converted into nitric oxide, which studies have shown can lower blood pressure and increase blood flow to the brain.
Studies have demonstrated that exercise alone can benefit the brain. For their study, Rejeski and team set out to investigate whether beetroot juice might boost the brain benefits of physical activity.

Beetroot juice helped strengthen brain's somatomotor cortex

The study comprised 26 participants, aged 55 years and older, who had high blood pressure. None of the participants engaged in regular exercise, and they were taking up to two medications to help lower their blood pressure.
All subjects were required to engage in 50 minutes of moderately intense exercise on a treadmill three times per week for 6 weeks. One hour before each session, half of the participants consumed a beetroot juice supplement containing 560 milligrams of nitrate, while the remaining participants consumed a placebo low in nitrates.
At the end of the 6 weeks, the researchers measured participants' brain functioning using MRI.
The team found that subjects who consumed the beetroot juice supplement prior to exercising demonstrated a structurally stronger somatomotor cortex - a brain region that helps to control body movement - compared with participants who consumed the placebo.
Furthermore, subjects who drank the beetroot juice supplement also showed greater connectivity between the somatomotor cortex and the insular cortex, a brain region associated with motor control, cognitive functioning, emotion, and other brain functions. Such connectivity is usually seen in the brains of younger individuals, the team notes.
The researchers explain that the somatomotor cortex receives and processes signals from the muscles. As such, physical activity should strengthen this process.
They suggest that beetroot juice strengthens the somatomotor cortex further through its nitrate content; its conversion into nitric oxide boosts the delivery of oxygen to the brain.
"Nitric oxide is a really powerful molecule. It goes to the areas of the body which are hypoxic, or needing oxygen, and the brain is a heavy feeder of oxygen in your body," says Rejeski.
While further research is required to replicate their results, the researchers believe that their study suggests that what we eat in later life may play an important role in brain health and mobility.

Brain gains seen in elderly mice injected with human umbilical cord plasma

Memory protein that declines with aging also identified in mouse study

In the hippocampus of a 1-month-old mouse, some nerve cells (red) produce the protein TIMP2 (green), which declines with age and may help keep the brain young. Blue indicates microglial cells.

Plasma taken from human umbilical cords can rejuvenate old mice’s brains and improve their memories, a new study suggests. The results, published online April 19 in Nature, may ultimately help scientists develop ways to stave off aging.

Earlier studies have turned up youthful effects of young mice’s blood on old mice SN: 12/27/14, p. 21). Human plasma, the new results suggest,confers similar benefits, says study coauthor Joseph Castellano, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. The study also identifies a protein that’s particularly important for the youthful effects, a detail that “adds a nice piece to the puzzle,” Castellano says.

Identifying the exact components responsible for rejuvenating effects is important, says geroscientist Matt Kaeberlein of the University of Washington in Seattle. That knowledge will bring scientists closer to understanding how old tissues can be rejuvenated. And having the precise compounds in hand means that scientists might have an easier time translating therapies to people.

Kaeberlein cautions that the benefits were in mice, not people. Still, he says, “there is good reason to be optimistic that some of these approaches will have similar effects on health span in people.”

Like people, as mice age, brain performance begins to slip. Compared with younger generations, elderly mice perform worse on some tests of learning and memory, taking longer to remember the location of an escape route out of a maze, for instance. Researchers suspect that these deficits come from age-related trouble in the hippocampus, a brain structure important for learning and memory.

Every fourth day for two weeks, Castellano and colleagues injected old mice with human plasma taken from umbilical cords, young adults and elderly adults. The source of plasma infusion changed the behavior of genes in the hippocampus, the researchers found. Elderly mice that had received umbilical cord or young adult plasma showed gene behavior changes that go along with improved hippocampal functioning. And after infusions of human cord plasma, more hippocampus cells churned out a protein called c-Fos, a marker of a busy brain that’s known to decline with age. Elderly mice that received elderly human plasma showed no such changes.

Brain reset
An elderly mouse that received plasma infusions derived from human umbilical cords (right) had nerve cells in the hippocampus that produced the protein c-Fos (red dots pointed out by black arrows), a marker of nerve cell activity. Some c-Fos protein was seen in elderly brains that received plasma from young adults (middle right). Very little c-Fos was present when the plasma came from elderly people (middle left) or when no plasma was injected (left).

These brain changes came with behavioral improvements, too. Elderly mice that received umbilical cord plasma were quicker to learn and better at remembering the location of an escape hatch in a maze than elderly mice that didn’t receive the plasma. Mice that received injections were also more adept at learning associations between a room and a painful electric shock, and even better at making nests for babies, a skill that usually suffers with age.

Castellano and colleagues searched for the ingredient responsible for the effects by comparing plasma proteins whose abundance changes with age in mice and people. One candidate seemed particularly promising: Levels of a protein called TIMP2 started out high early in life but then dropped with age, in both mice and people.

Infusions of mouse TIMP2 had positive effects on elderly mice, both in their brains and their behavior, the team found. And when researchers removed TIMP2 from young mice, the animals grew worse at remembering new objects.

The study doesn’t explain how TIMP2 might work in the brain, says Gillian Murphy, a molecular cell biologist at the University of Cambridge who studies TIMP proteins and the proteins that TIMPs interact with. “Before any realistic interpretation of these data can be made,” it’s essential to figure out how TIMP2 affects hippocampal cells, she says.

In the meantime, a clinical trial designed to test whether young human plasma can slow the cognitive decline of people with Alzheimer’s disease is under way. Data have been collected and are being analyzed, says study coauthor Tony Wyss-Coray, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Stanford. Wyss-Coray and Castellano have ties to the company Alkahest, which is involved with the clinical trial and therapies to counter aging.

Psychedelic drugs induce 'heightened state of consciousness', brain scans show

Researchers measured the activity of neurons in people’s brains as the drugs took hold.

Researchers measured the activity of neurons in people’s brains as the drugs took hold. Photograph: Suresh Muthukumaraswamy
Brain scans have revealed the first evidence for what appears to be a heightened state of consciousness in people who took psychedelic drugs in the name of science.
Healthy volunteers who received LSD, ketamine or psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms, were found to have more random brain activity than normal while under the influence, according to a study into the effects of the drugs.
The shift in brain activity accompanied a host of peculiar sensations that the participants said ranged from floating and finding inner peace, to distortions in time and a conviction that the self was disintegrating.
Researchers at the University of Sussex and Imperial College, London, measured the activity of neurons in people’s brains as the drugs took hold. Similar measurements have shown that when people are asleep or under anaesthetic, their neurons tend to fire in a more predictable way than when they are awake.
“What we find is that under each of these psychedelic compounds, this specific measure of global conscious level goes up, so it moves in the other direction. The neural activity becomes more unpredictable,” said Anil Seth, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Sussex. “Until now, we’ve only ever seen decreases compared to the baseline of the normal waking state.”
Brain activity with (left to right) psilocybin, ketamine and LSD
 Brain activity with (left to right) psilocybin, ketamine and LSD. The red areas indicate higher levels of random brain activity than normal. Photograph: Suresh Muthukumaraswamy
The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, appears 74 years to the day after the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman went on the world’s first LSD trip. In one of the most terrifying examples of self experimentation in the annals of science, Hoffman ingested 250 micrograms of lysergic acid and had to be helped home on his bicycle by his lab assistant. After a local doctor reassured Hoffman that he was not about to die, the scientist began to enjoy himself, writing later about fantastic images surging in on him and “exploding in coloured fountains.”
The scans found the most notable effects in parts of the brain that are known to be important for perceptions, rather than other roles such as language and movement. And while it is unclear how the change in brain activity affects consciousness, the result is what the scientists expected.
“I think people would have the intuitive idea that their experience on psychedelic compounds is a bit more random, a bit less constrained, that there’s a mixing of the senses, and all kinds of connections that are experienced between things that are previously unconnected,” Seth said.

Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher at Imperial College who took part in the study, said the sudden increase in randomness in brain activity appeared to reflect a deeper and richer conscious state.
“People tend to associate phrases like ‘a higher state of consciousness’ with hippy speak and mystical nonsense. This is potentially the beginning of the demystification, showing its physiological and biological underpinnings,” he said. “Maybe this is a neural signature of the mind opening.”
Beyond confirming what scores of hippies learned more than 40 years ago, the research could help scientists to understand what neural activity corresponds to different levels of consciousness in humans. Another hope is that by understanding how people respond to the drugs, doctors can more accurately predict which patients might benefit from having psychedelic drugs to treat mental disorders, such as depression.
Carhart-Harris was among researchers who published a small trial last year into the use of psilocybin to treat serious depression. The results were promising, but more studies are needed before the compound can be considered for treatment, and the scientists warned people off picking magic mushrooms to treat their condition. 
“The evidence is becoming clear that there is a clinical efficacy with these drugs,” said Seth. “We might be able to measure the effects of LSD in an individual way to predict how someone might respond to it as treatment.”

Graphene and gold make a better brain probe

Graphene and gold make a better brain probe.

Electrodes placed in the brain record neural activity, and can help treat neural diseases like Parkinson's and epilepsy. Interest is also growing in developing better brain-machine interfaces, in which electrodes can help control prosthetic limbs. Progress in these fields is hindered by limitations in electrodes, which are relatively stiff and can damage soft brain tissue.
Designing smaller, gentler electrodes that still pick up brain signals is a challenge because brain signals are so weak. Typically, the smaller the electrode, the harder it is to detect a signal. However, a team from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology in Korea developed new probes that are small, flexible and read brain signals clearly.
The probe consists of an electrode, which records the brain signal. The signal travels down an interconnection line to a connector, which transfers the signal to machines measuring and analysing the signals.
The electrode starts with a thin gold base. Attached to the base are tiny zinc oxide nanowires, which are coated in a thin layer of gold, and then a layer of conducting polymer called PEDOT. These combined materials increase the probe's effective surface area, conducting properties, and strength of the electrode, while still maintaining flexibility and compatibility with soft tissue.
Packing several long, thin nanowires together onto one probe enables the scientists to make a smaller electrode that retains the same effective surface area of a larger, flat electrode. This means the electrode can shrink, but not reduce signal detection. The interconnection line is made of a mix of graphene and gold. Graphene is flexible and gold is an excellent conductor. The researchers tested the probe and found it read rat brain signals very clearly, much better than a standard flat, gold electrode.
"Our graphene and nanowires-based flexible electrode array can be useful for monitoring and recording the functions of the nervous system, or to deliver electrical signals to the brain," the researchers conclude in their paper recently published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.
The probe requires further clinical tests before widespread commercialization. The researchers are also interested in developing a wireless version to make it more convenient for a variety of applications.